The Rolling Stones’ vast and voluminous work has captured the hearts and imaginations of the public at large, not least because they spent so much time fine-tuning their energy and effort, creating a body of work that is diverse in its ambition, and far-reaching in its resolve. Posterity has favoured Mick Taylor, largely due to his virtuosity and bellowing guitar style, but there are fans who enjoy Brian Jones’ work as a multi-instrumentalist, particularly his sitar playing which made George Harrison’s efforts on ‘Nowhere Man’ sound primitive in comparison.
This leaves Ronnie Wood in the unfortunate position of musical blow-in, picking up the pieces to curate a body of work that no matter how impressive was always destined to suffer in comparison to the earlier efforts. But what this doesn’t allow for was Wood’s compatibility with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as he anchored himself as the go-between two disparate giants, creating an invisible voice that sandwiched nicely between the two chief songwriters.
His riffs were punchier than Taylor’s, making it more of a double rhythm, which was essential at a time when punk was threatening to make The Rolling Stones obsolete in their ambition. Wood’s combination of sulphurous proto-punk, bonhomie and Celtic melancholy was perfect for The Rolling Stones, as Wood’s collaborations with Rod Stewart – from the pastoral ‘Maggie May’ to the rollicking ‘Stay With Me’ – showed that his guitars embellished the singer’s desire to reach a resolution in his quest.
Wood also brought a levity to the band, bringing a frothiness Irish singer Imelda May likened to a grand dance, as partners waltz in and out of the corners, never underestimating the importance of the rhythm in question. Where the characters, chords and cadences came together to create a new tapestry that was only gagging to be heard by an audience, the songs reverted to a more flavoursome form of rock in response.
What Wood brought to the orbit wasn’t just frivolity, but expertise, playing the thunderous opening riff to ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)’ and the jaunty bass to ‘Emotional Rescue’, covering the tracks during the band’s most uncertain period: the 1980s. Wood wound up writing with Richards at a time when Jagger refused to speak to the guitarist, and the two of them resorted to writing in a way that was urgent, urbane and deeply sincere.
No matter the backstage politics, Wood never let it affect his relationship with the band. “People say, ‘If you’re going to be successful at something, pick something that you enjoy doing.’ And the smile is all over my face because I love playing guitar and I love the challenge of learning something new.”
It probably helped that Wood started off as a bass player, before rising to the ranks of lead guitarist. Jeff Beck asked him to play bass, but his heart was on the guitar, which might explain why he turned down the chance to work with Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. He was the musical director of The Faces, but preferred the position of a back-room boy, which is why he suited the position of guitar player in The Rolling Stones.
He was the ultimate chameleon, channelling Richards’ riff on the sparkling ‘Start Me Up’, or capturing the essence of Jagger’s vocals on the disco-textured ‘Miss You’. He was less of a Taylor clone, and more of a lieutenant determined to follow the orders of his generals without hesitation or complacency.
Somewhere within this work came the sound of a songwriter harnessing his own craft, culminating in a series of diverse, frequently brilliant, solo albums. By the time the band recorded 2005’s A Bigger Bang, had become a fixture of their sound, and he was clearly comfortable enough in himself to work with Mick Taylor on the band’s 50th-anniversary shows in 2013.
Bassist Bill Wyman quit the band during the 1990s, drummer Charlie Watts left the planet in 2021, which leaves Wood as the only permanent Stone beside the Glimmer Twins. It’s unlikely the band will reach the heights of the 1960s, now that they are past their 60s, but as long as they have Wood, they are sure to rock and roll.